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Classical Classics 3
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Swan Lake Suite, Op.20 [21:10]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem, S97 [16:04]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 104 in D, London* [26:06]
Philharmonia Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra*/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1958 and 1959. ADD/stereo
BEULAH 3PDR2 [63:22] Download only

The record companies have been having something of a field day recently in reissuing Karajan recordings from his time with the Philharmonia and with the Berlin Philharmonic. For those not wishing to invest in one of those bumper boxes, here is a timely reminder of some of the best of his earlier recordings.

The Swan Lake Suite appeared in tandem with the Sleeping Beauty Suite on SAX2306, the Liszt with Berlioz and Respighi on mono 33CX1548 – the stereo was not released until some years later in a box set and later still at mid-price on SXLP30450 – and the Haydn with Mozart Symphony No.40 on RCA SB2092. The Beulah collection doesn’t really hang together as a programme except as an example of Karajan’s conducting from before his time in Berlin when much of what he recorded became somewhat too streamlined for many listeners.

As a taster for the complete Swan Lake Karajan’s recording of the Suite, if you’re not in the mood for the whole ballet, is about as good as any. Beulah’s duplications, however, are becoming a little confusing: you may already have purchased this for £1.50/$2.27 as Beulah Extra 1BX18 – June 2010 DL Roundup. The recording has come up sounding fresh in this transfer.

Karajan’s Les Préludes is a little understated by comparison with some other recordings, but none the worse for that. Though his BPO version on DG is available in a number of combinations, this Philharmonia recording appears otherwise only on the 12-CD Warner set (2564633623) so the release on this album is particularly valuable. I haven’t been able to hear the Warner transfer, but I doubt if it’s much better than the Beulah. A word of caution: like all the material on this album, this recording has already appeared, in this case on Beulah Extra 10BX18, attractively priced at £1/$1.50 – DL News 2012/13.

Though first released by RCA, the Haydn recording was made by Decca and it’s still available from them, coupled with Beethoven Symphony No.7 (E4702562), on a 9-CD set (4780155) and as part of a Vienna Philharmonic whopper (4786756, 64 CDs). If none of those couplings appeal, especially if you baulk at the idea of buying a gigantic box, the Beulah transfer is good. As well as listening to the wma files which I received for review, I downsized to mp3, the form in which downloads come from Amazon, and found the recording little inferior, if at all, to the Decca transfer of the version coupled with Beethoven, as streamed from Qobuz.

The performance is rather more plush than usual nowadays, falling slightly between the two stools of Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Colin Davis. Beecham eschewed Robbins Landons’ authentic scores for the London symphonies, so the result should in theory be wide of the mark. In practice, it’s the usual naughty-but-nice Beecham way with Haydn. His was the only LP of No.104 that I ever owned – at full-price when I could ill afford full-price – and its CD replacement is still an essential part of my collection. Now part of a 6-CD budget-price set of the London symphonies and The Seasons, Warner/EMI 3678932 or 9846032 – review: both around £20, but shop around and you may find one slightly less than the other, such are the arcane economics of CD buying.

It’s with Davis and Jochum, however, that Karajan is most aptly compared. Both, like him, use modern instruments: Davis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips (now Decca), performs all the London symphonies on a pair of budget-price twofers, complemented but not superseded, by a newer LSO Live set which never reached as far as No.104. Jochum also offers both sets of London symphonies with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, supplemented by earlier recordings of Nos. 88 and 98 from Berlin and Bavaria, in a budget box, now available as a download only (E4743642 – July 2011/2 Roundup but ignore defunct Passionato link. Download from prestoclassical.co.uk, mp3 and lossless, with pdf booklet.

With those alternatives in mind, I was more than a little hard on the Karajan when it appeared separately on Beulah Extra 2-5BX18: ‘Two variant views of Karajan’s Haydn are encompassed in the one word, ‘controlled’: some would say finely-controlled, others over-controlled. Even when this recording reappeared in 1970 on the Ace of Diamonds label, there wasn’t too much competition, but it wouldn’t now feature high on my own shortlist – which must be headed by … Colin Davis and … the Eugen Jochum set … Like Davis and Jochum, Karajan uses a modern-instrument orchestra but I’ve no objections on this count: Haydn’s last six London Symphonies were conceived on a grand scale, as if to out-Beethoven Beethoven, so they work well with a large orchestra. Nor does Karajan over-drive the music – there’s almost as much charm here as from Sir Thomas Beecham – and the recording stands up very well in this transfer, yet ultimately I’d go for Beecham, Davis or Jochum, all available very inexpensively.’

I’d still go for one of those three for my Desert Island but this time round I’ve grown to like the Karajan more than before and it would certainly provide a more than satisfactory alternative, especially now that it comes in tandem with two other attractive examples of his pre-BPO days.

Unless you have already separately purchased the three components of this album – bought separately they cost slightly less – and if their placement together appeals, this is another fine reissue from Beulah.

Brian Wilson